There are many reasons to admire Indonesia for its 2019 national elections. These elections were the largest one-day elections in the world. Despite some glitches and disputes, the implementation of the elections went relatively well. These elections showed that support for democracy is strong in Indonesia. In a world where democracy seems to be in retreat, this is something to celebrate.
Yet these elections also generated a debate about whether Indonesia’s electoral system need reforms. The immediate spark was the death of over 500 local election organizers. Most of them died of exhaustion, due to the complex challenge of overseeing five simultaneous elections – for president, three parliaments and the DPD. This sparked discussions about whether these elections should all be held simultaneously, and whether electronic voting should be implemented.
There is a long history of tinkering with Indonesia’s electoral system. To name just a few of the most important reforms: the adoption of direct elections for president (in 2001) and district heads and governors (in 2004), the shift from an open to a closed list as a manner of allocating parliamentary seats in 2009 and the gradual raising of the threshold for a party to gain a seat in parliament to, currently, 4 percent. Regular reforms are not necessarily a bad thing: it makes sense to learn from experience, particularly for a new democracy like Indonesia’s.
Yet so far these reform attempts left an important problem off the agenda. So far these reforms have not focused on reducing the costs of election campaigns. They focused on other goals, such as curtailing the number of parties. As a result these reforms have actually increased the costs of election campaigns. Over the last six years I studied Indonesia’s elections for book that I recently published together with Edward Aspinall, entitled Democracy for Sale: Elections, Clientelism and the State in Indonesia. We found that these campaign costs have now reached a level that seriously affects the quality of both Indonesia’s government and its democracy. The current discussions about electoral reform need to be broadened: electoral reforms should also attempt to reduce the role of money in Indonesia’s democracy.
Why money is a problem
The problems posed by Indonesia’s high-cost elections are becoming increasingly obvious. Not just to observers, but also to politicians themselves. I came across many politicians who, like ‘Syarif’ – a candidate for vice-mayor in Tangerang – complain about the contradictory challenges they face: “People tell us, you cannot be corrupt, you have to be clean. But on the other hand, they always ask us for money, without thinking about how the leader will get the money. And if the leader gets the money from forbidden areas, they will be angry.”
Syarif nicely summed up the impossible situation in which many politicians find themselves. On the one hand politicians need to be willing and able to hand out money and gifts. The practice of ‘vote buying’ of serangan fajarhas become widespread, particularly in local parliamentary and district head elections. Candidates feel that, in order to be taken seriously, they need to hand out community gifts as well as envelops of money. In a recent book Vote Buying in Indonesia, political scientist Burhan Muhtadi used opinion polls to estimate that about 33 percent of all Indonesian voters experienced vote buying in 2014 – a figure that ranks Indonesia among the highest in the world. He also found that this practice is rapidly intensifying. Just imagine the mindboggling amount of money involved when last month many of the 245.000 (!) candidates handed out money to 33 percent of Indonesia’s 192 million voters.
And vote buying is merely one of many campaign expenses. Politicians generally also have to pay a hefty mahar politik, the payment candidates make to political parties to get their support. And then politicians have to spend money to build a tim sukses, organize campaign events and pay for witnesses at polling booths. For our book, we asked over 500 political experts from across Indonesia to give an estimate of campaign expenditures. With considerable regional variation, they estimated that, on average, a winning district head spends about 28 billion rupiah, and an elected governor about 166 billion rupiah.
This money needs to be recovered. As Syarif implicitly acknowledged, in these circumstances it is very difficult for politicians to avoid stealing state money. The high costs of election campaigns are fueling corruption and, as a consequence, limit the budgets available for improving public services, welfare, infrastructure etc. High costs elections do not only ensure that many politicians end up in jail, they also damages the quality of life of ordinary Indonesians. A second negative effect of the high-cost of elections is that it leads to political inequality: if you do not have a lot of money or rich backers you stand little chance of winning elections. This is why Indonesia’s democracy is often tainted as being oligarchic: the high costs of elections enable economic elites to dominate politics.
A third reason to worry about campaign costs is that it fuels disillusionment with democracy. Politics risks being seen as an affair for greedy, corrupt people. A vicious circleis currently at work: as people consider their politicians to be corrupt, they demand more vote buying during elections, which in turn forces politicians to become even more corrupt. Disillusionment might give rise to an Indonesian Payuth Chan-Ocha or Duterte, who scale back democracy in the name of curtailing corruption.
What can be done?
It does not have to be this way. Election campaigns do not have to be so extravagantly expensive. Yes, vote buying has its roots in cultural and economic conditions. These cannot be changed easily or quickly. But the current high-costs elections also have their roots in Indonesia’s electoral system. A consensus is growing, for example, that the decision of Indonesia’s constitutional court in 2009 to use an open list proportional voting system for parliamentary elections greatly intensified vote buying. Under this system, parliamentary seats are not allocated on the basis of the position of a candidate on a party list of candidates (as in a ‘closed list system’) but purely on the number of votes a candidate receives. While well intentioned, the effect of this reform has been that candidates of the same party are now competing among themselves. Candidates from the same party are trying to outspend each other.
A second problem with Indonesia’s electoral system is that it weakens political parties in significant ways. The candidate-centered nature of the electoral system forces candidates to run personal campaigns rather than engaging in party-led, collaborative efforts – something which could reduce campaign costs. Furthermore, the election supervision board Bawaslu is relatively powerless to catch and prosecute vote buying practices. With a stronger legal mandate Bawaslu could become more effective in deterring politicians from handing out money.
These are just three examples of how changes in the electoral system might curtail campaign costs. By addressing these issues, electoral reform could reduce the role of money in elections to more healthier proportions. I am not saying that such reforms would be easy. These issues are complex, and changing the electoral system could have all sorts of unintended consequences. It would require a careful and thoughtful process, a process that should build on a detailed understanding of the incentive structure that politicians currently face.
I am saying, however, that such an effort to reduce the role of money is well worth the effort. Achieving lower-cost elections would be a very big victory: cheaper election campaigns could lead to lower levels of corruption, higher budgets to improve public services and a healthier democracy with equal opportunities for rich and poor candidates alike. That deserves to be on the top of the agenda.
This article appeared on 20 july 2019 in The Jakarta Post, available here